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Response: The Real Story in Camden, N.J.

Guest post by Laura Waters

This post is in response to a July 5th post by Julia Sass Rubin, "Charter School Networks and Shady Political Dealings: The Camden, N.J. Story"

Every day in Camden, New Jersey, students wake up with just over a 50 percent chance of earning a high school diploma.

This is reality. It is negligence on the part of a school system that has failed families for decades. It has to change.

For decades, though, it hasn't. Ten years ago, Governor Jon Corzine's Education Commissioner, Lucille Davy, declared, "I can't get past [Camden's] third- and fourth-grade reading and math scores, which are horrible." In the same article David Sciarra, Executive Director of the Education Law Center and chief advocate for New Jersey's poor urban students, explained that "the woes in Camden point to a serious leadership problem. The state [Board of Education] has also lacked the capacity and will, until the last four to six months, to exercise its responsibility to step in and take control."

But over the past year—for the first time in decades—there is real cause for hope for Camden's students. The State of New Jersey has finally lived up to its moral obligation to take action and appointed a new district leader in Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard. A child of Iranian immigrants who fled to this country to escape religious persecution, Rouhanifard has unveiled and begun to deliver on a bold and aggressive plan—The Camden Commitment—to dramatically improve the quality of education for all students in Camden.

As part of this strategic plan, Rouhanifard has also worked to bring some of the best nonprofits in the country to Camden to provide immediate new school options to parents and families under the auspices of the Urban Hope Act. For example, KIPP, which already runs a high-achieving consortium of schools across the country, will open this fall the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, eventually planned for K-5, with guaranteed enrollment for all children in the neighborhood. Mastery Charter Schools, which operates 15 high-quality schools with 9,600 students in nearby Philadelphia, just had its application approved by the state. The state also approved Uncommon Schools, where 6th grade students in 75 percent of its regions outperform their peers statewide in reading.

These have not been easy changes. Creating immediate new opportunities for families and fixing decades of mismanagement has required difficult choices. But for the first time in Camden, as parents and community leaders and elected officials come together, there finally seems to be a collective commitment to doing what's right for children—not adults.

Unfortunately, the commitment to children doesn't seem to extend to the suburbs of New Jersey. Julia Sass Rubin, in what is becoming a tired refrain, wrote a post here on EdWeek that, among other things, attacked the process by which these new schools were being opened. The allegations—which even the most novice Google user could easily dispense with—included the following:

  • Claim: lack of community engagement. Reality: The Superintendent held a 100-day listening tour, as well as four community meetings to discuss the plans for the new schools.
  • Claim: incomplete applications. Reality: The applications included every requirement asked for under statute, from schematics for the new buildings to a detailed construction timeline.
  • Claim: They had to change the law to get them approved. Reality: The law hasn't been changed yet; it's still a bill awaiting the governor's signature. These schools were approved based on the statute already in place.
  • Claim: Renaissance schools are greedy and only care about "market share." Reality: These are non-profits with talented (if not underpaid) educators who care deeply about kids. And they operate with fewer per pupil dollars than the district.

Education advocates who recognize the urgency of need in Camden typically don't get bogged down talking about bureaucratic processes. In fact, by even taking the time to address these ridiculous claims, we're ceding the higher ground to defenders of a failed bureaucracy, those like Julia Sass Rubin. We're talking about whether x person did y thing in order to comply with z regulation. We're not talking about the reality that Camden students face every day or that next fall several hundred Camden children will get to attend better schools.

Now I don't speak for Camden parents. I don't think Ms. Rubin does either. But what I do know is that parents and guardians are smart. They are dedicated. And they want the absolute best for their children.

Last year, before the passage of the Urban Hope Act or the opening of any Renaissance Schools or Mr. Rouhanifard's arrival, 3,500 children of Camden's 15,000-student enrollment were attending 11 charter schools. Others were on waiting lists. Choice was used up. Now parents will have more choices: traditional district schools, charter schools, and Renaissance schools.

That is the real story here. The demand for better schools—now. We should celebrate that choice, not fight to diminish it. This is about children, not market share.

Laura Waters writes about education policy and politics at her blog NJ Left Behind, as well as NJ Spotlight, WHYY Newsworks, and other publications. Waters has a doctorate in American Literature from SUNY Binghamton, where she taught composition and literature in the Educational Opportunity Program, and is a New Jersey school board member.

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